How Can We Learn Together, and Attract People Who Will Help Us All to Think Differently?

At the CECA Southern Annual Dinner, I delivered an address reflecting on the key points I made in 2016 – what has changed and what new challenges may lay ahead.
I was asked by several people to share a transcript, so here it is. I hope you find it interesting and that it prompts some thought and discussion.

A year ago, I felt there were two key issues facing our industry:

  • First, to learn collectively and more effectively as an industry. You may recall the contrast I gave between the approach of the Health Industry and the Aviation Industry to learning.
  • Second, to attract the very best people from every walk of life.

I realise these were just two of many issues, but these are still my top two.

In fact, they don’t just remain as my top issues – they have become even more mission critical! These two issues are likely to impact on the success and wellbeing of all CECA members: customers, members, suppliers, as well as the many millions of end users of the infrastructure we create.

The unfolding political and economic environment over the last 12 months means one thing for sure ‘uncertainty is now the new certainty.’

Creating environments for our people to operate at the very broadest boundaries of learning, allowing them to be more agile and innovative are critical to the success of our industry.

Are we really starting to learn like Aviators?

Last year I delivered my case that our industry needed to learn like aviators. I left you with a question: “As an industry, where did you feel we were on the scale between health and aviation?”

A year on, how would you respond to that very same question?

For our people working in construction and civil engineering, are we really learning fast enough?  I have some indicators that tell me we are not learning anything like as quickly as we need to:

  • At least 459 contractors in the first quarter of this year went bust.
  • According to the Construction News Top 100 survey results, the top 10 largest contractors, when combined, are in totality losing money.
  • The recent ONS survey tells us 23% of our people are considering leaving the industry. That is around 600,000 people; or the equivalent of a city the size of Leeds!
  • Over 17,000 of our people lost at least 1 day of work last year due to physical injury. If they could get there, they would fill the 02 Arena!
  • Over 14,000 more people reported stress related illness. Wembley Area would be the biggest doctor’s waiting room in England!
  • Staggeringly, another 43 of our people were killed by OUR construction industry last year!

And of course… there is Grenfell: the most powerful wakeup call for an entire industry in living memory. Regardless of your role as a legislator, specifier, designer, customer, contractor, supplier, auditor, inspector, manager, engineer or trades person – accelerated learning at every opportunity is an absolute necessity.

Outcomes are always the best place to focus to assess progress. They avoid the distraction caused by clever articulation of all the effort going in. So, based on these outputs, the evidence strongly suggests that the industry has an awfully long way to go to even get close to the performance bar set by the aviators.

AND – to be clear, by ‘the industry’, I do mean ALL parties: our members, customers, Government advisors and suppliers. And most importantly, all of us as individuals.

So, do we ourselves believe – and do those who work for and with us believethat a culture of learning like aviation is possible in our industry?

There are clearly pockets of excellence and best practice. These set better ways to learn and engage collectively as an industry. The Anglian Water and Connect Plus communities are just two of many examples.

However, there is a general propensity to use and accept contracts that set out to apportion blame at the outset. Contracts that fail to align all parties with common project objectives. None of us should be surprised that contractual disputes are reportedly at their highest level for many years.

The only winners in these circumstances are not customers. Nor are they our members or our suppliers. The winners are the lawyers and consultants’ practices who take absolutely no risk whatsoever in any involvement they have.

The good news is the here and now! The wherewithal to learn and change our industry fundamentally is in this room, as are those who face the ultimate consequences of being an industry that does not have a collective belief for learning.

Doing things differently means attracting people who think differently

My second key area to drive success was of course the need to attract the very best people from every walk of life.

If we want an industry that thinks and does things differently, we have to draw skills and challenging views from the very broadest and most diverse range of people that we can.

We must attract those people and ensure when they join us, they experience a safe and welcoming environment in which they can flourish.

As an industry we have a substantial way to go, but the Fairness, Inclusion and Respect Programme (in which CECA is playing a significant part) has so far, in my view, been a resounding success:

  • 1,400 people from 699 companies have been ‘FIR’ trained; the majority of these SME’s.
  • FIR Ambassadors recruitment is 1100% above target.
  • 95% of companies engaged rated the quality of FIR training as excellent or good.

The outcome of all the hard work of all those involved in the FIR Programme has been rewarded with a further substantial five year funding package. The outcomes to be delivered will include:

  • Building a network of 500 FIR Ambassadors.
  • Engaging and training 5,000 people from 2,500 businesses.
  • Developing an accredited Inclusive Leadership Programme.
  • Further development of the best in class FIR Resource Library.

What I really like about this programme is that the partners involved recognise that best practice and learning have to be freely shared. I can’t think of another example where one of my competitors has said, “I am happy to come along to your business and share what we have learnt on our own FIR journey so far.”

Now that is starting to learn like aviators and long may it continue!

So please, can I request to all those Chief Executives, Managing Directors and Business Leaders who have not signed their organisations up to the FIR Pledge, please do so.

Summing up 

In summing up we have clearly seen how our members, working in collaboration with our customers and suppliers, are achieving truly remarkable things.

But in an emerging world where ‘the only certainty is uncertainty’, it’s ever more important for us as an industry to learn and apply learning like aviators. And we must work much harder to broaden the skills and diversity of the people in our industry to help us make that essential change. That’s why I’m encouraging all our business leaders to sign up and support the FIR pledge.

Finally, I return to the importance of beliefs and end with a very personal story.

In the run up to this year’s dinner I was to spend a special and reflective time in hospital with my father, who was suffering from a terminal heart condition. In life my father was an immensely hard working and resourceful man who would in later years become the sole carer of my mother through the crippling stages of dementia.

During his later life I became increasingly frustrated with my father’s continual refusal of help and support. At the time, I expressed what I felt, were very well-articulated logical and well-reasoned benefits that external care support would afford him. But it got me nowhere.

What I failed to address is the very thing that drove his whole philosophy and behaviours.  His belief was that it was his role, and his role only, to look after my mother. He had been conditioned through his life experiences that ‘you look after your own.’

You might well ask yourselves, what has this got to do with my address? It has everything to do with it!

As leaders, if we really want to create an industry culture of learning like aviators and openly welcome people from all backgrounds to grow and prosper in our industry – it has to start with us believing that a fundamental change is possible. That we really can think and act differently.

Through cultural change programmes such as STOP Think! We then have the enormous task of progressively transforming the beliefs of the hundreds of thousands of people who work in our industry.

So I leave you tonight with one very last thought…

When managing set-backs with the people around you, does the way you behave allow those people to feel blamed and defensive? OR does your behaviour make them feel motivated and empowered to use the learning opportunity to push the boundaries of what COULD be possible?

Richard King is Group Marketing & Communications Director of Geoffrey Osborne Ltd and Chairman of CECA Southern

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